Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Short Stories on Wednesdays
Impulse by Conrad Aiken

Over at Breadcrumb Reads, Risa reads a short story every Wednesday. She says:
"From almost the beginning of this year I had been looking for a good short story meme to take part in, mainly because I have so many short story books sitting on my shelf, and had no incentive to read them. The short story form is rather under-appreciated, and it would be nice, I think, to draw more people to the genre. I know I’ve spent the last few months enjoying my short story sessions!"

Conrad Aiken    1889-1973
I thought it would be fun to read along. So, here is my first contribution:

Impulse by Conrad Aiken

Michael Lowes thinks of himself as overworked and under-appreciated. He dodges his wife and an ever-increasing stack of bills to play a regular card game with a group of friends. At the card game, the men discuss the idea of impulses: wanting to get something at the store, to kiss an attractive woman, to hit somebody you dislike. Normal, natural, human impulses that we all get, yet we all suppress. His friends pose the question: What if you were to give into these impulses? On his way home from the game, Michael mulls over the conversation and can't stand the temptation to try it out. He goes into a store and steals something. He gets caught and goes to jail. When he insists that the whole thing was a silly bet, his friends deny knowing of it. His wife decides to leave him. In short, his whole life is turned upside down.

This story begins by describing a pretty normal, run-of-the-mill existence for a lot of people. A working man giving his sometimes-understanding wife an excuse to play cards while worrying about paying bills, feeling like he deserves a break. After the first paragraph or two, most people could still relate to our main character.

However, as his card games gets underway, we learn more about Michael. When that fateful discussion of impulses takes place, he suddenly becomes obsessed. His memories of exciting childhood exploits tempts him into what he thinks of as a harmless prank. He steals.

We don't know how much the item costs that he steals, but for a drugstore, it seems an expensive one. The events that follow do seem drastic, compared with what he's done, especially for a first timer. He's sent off to jail, his friends and family abandon him. We may be seeing Michael through the same rose-colored glasses through which he sees himself: a good man caught up in a horrible misunderstanding. However, if we look closely, an entirely different man is revealed.

Michael himself states at the beginning of the story that his so-called friends are "cheap fellows, really--mere pick-up acquaintances." Not the sort of loyal people who would come to someone's rescue if that one was found in trouble, certainly not for one they barely knew. His wife leaves him, not because of one tiny little mistake, but one that finally tipped the scale, which was already full from previous offenses: "All this time she had slowly been laying up a reserve of resentment. She had resented his inability to make money for the children, the little dishonesties they had had to commit in the matter of unpaid bills, the humiliations of duns, the too-frequent removals from town to town . . ." He clearly pardoned himself of these wrongs, each time they were committed, and gave himself a clean slate, not realizing that his wife would not do the same.

And then when he learns that his friends had the same desires to take what they wanted, damn the consequences, he was emboldened: "He had often felt these impulses. To know that this was a kind of universal human inclination came over him with something like relief." He was "amused" and "fascinated," even "thrilled," by the idea of really letting loose, removing his inhibitions. Then he made that fateful mistake of believing that giving into an impulse, committing a crime, could be taken back as easily as it was carried out. He thinks of himself as a "thief by accident"--but is that really true? He insists he is not a criminal, but by what reasoning? A criminal is a person who has committed a crime. Why does he believe that the reasons he gives (ie., It was a silly joke! Mere jest! I have a wife and kids!) somehow exempt him from the consequences of his unacceptable behavior?

Even before his incarceration, he insists that life was always unfair to him, when in fact, he's been quite unfair to life. He is obviously the type of person who wants more than he's willing to work for and will always believe that he deserves more than he's got. He's tricked himself into thinking that the world owes him something, and he got the full effects of what the world offers: cold, hard facts of life. In the end, he's forced into self-reflection, but he's only left with disappointment. His last thoughts show that he's still in denial, trying to convince himself that he's been wronged, that he really is a decent person: "His whole life seemed to be composed of such trivial and infinitely charming little episodes as these; and as he thought of them, affectionately and with wonder, he assured himself once more that he had really been a good man."


Risa said...

WoW. Really good post, Cam! :).... I like your analysis of the story. I think the protaganist's self-absorption kinda echoes the kind of people we are today, right? This guy sounds like he could be anybody. From what I've read in your post, it kinda brings home the fact that "free will" and "choices" play a very important role in what we finally our - whether we give in to the right impulses or the wrong ones.

Am looking forward to reading more of your posts on your short story reads!

best regards,

naida said...

Great review, this does sound like an interesting read.
I do enjoy short stories.

'he insists that life was always unfair to him, when in fact, he's been quite unfair to life'<- nicely said. How easily we can sometimes think life owes us something or other.